I may be in the minority among my peers, but I want Kanye West to keep talking. Despite the many who despise, disparage or dismiss him—unwilling or unable to properly digest what he’s saying, consuming bite-sized quotes and late-night parodies instead of engaging him in intellectual discourse—I want him to keep talking.
As a black man and an architect (one of about 2,000 in this country who can claim membership to both those groups), I am particularly cognizant of the Truman Show wall that exists between architects and recognition, and between black architects and acceptance. West’s recent interview with Zane Lowe administered reflections on design, architecture and the creative process in a dosage too high for most to swallow. I am tripping over myself with fear and excitement at the prospect of having such a powerful mouthpiece for a generation of black architects and designers who share his frustration and connect with his message.
Why? Because when Kanye West talks, people listen.
Architecture is both a profession with an illustrious history and a discipline with a distinguished tradition. Our biggest challenge has always been, as Philip Johnson explained in his interview with Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, that we are so desperate to have our beautiful creations built that we are willing to do it for almost nothing.
This completely contradicts Mr. West’s expressed desire to see “people make things as dope as possible and by default make money from it.” For architects, however, as opposed to rappers, it’s not as easy to sell out. It’s much more common for us to be usurped by tangential industries, like construction management and BIM consultancy, than to receive royalties on top-selling, radio-ready designs. The architect has become an afterthought; a devalued, overpriced luxury item, accessible only to the privileged few.
Black people in America have made improbable strides forward in the perceptibly short timespan since the Civil Rights movement; cracking the surface of political ceilings, directing the pace of popular culture, and leaving permanent dents in the body of major professions. Architecture remains an Old Boys’ Club.
The recent appeal to the Pritzker Prize committee on behalf of Denise Scott Brown gives a bit of insight on the established attitude towards women in the profession. The black community, through the efforts of groups like NOMA (The National Organization of Minority Architects), has long sought acceptance in the same arenas—awards recognition, faculty appointments, employment, and student enrollment. Whereas women have made gains in each of the above, blacks are still left behind struggling to put together numbers large enough to be relevant.
In various ways, at various times and in various forums, the questions of why this is the case and how to change it have been asked. The consensus opinion points past discrimination and towards early education. If there are no role models in architecture to look up to (in the public sphere or in everyday life), or no encouragement from parents to harness their creative potential, children are more likely to pursue medicine or law, sports or entertainment. Architecture won’t make you rich or cool.
Enter Kanye. Now comes the shift from talking to ourselves to talking to the world. Now black architects have a fighting chance at influencing the public consciousness in the way black artists, musicians, politicians and athletes have. Now the architecture of the hip-hop generation can take its rightful place alongside hip-hop music, dance, art and design. All this is made possible through the transposition of discourse from the academic halls of universities and conferences into the realm of Twitter, blogs, YouTube and other platforms of his choosing.
Some will suggest that direct engagement with the profession presents the best chance at easing his angst—that architects will be much more open to collaboration than fashion designers. By all accounts Mr. West has been doing that. The work that he has done through DONDA and in collaboration with 2×4 and OMA is more than some design professors have in their portfolios. He has been connecting with graduate architecture students at Columbia University according to a report on CC:. Yet, none of this got any real attention until he began talking about architecture to The New York Times and BBC Radio One.
Other affirmative actions, such as exclusively hiring black architects to design his offices and residences, and encouraging friends in the entertainment and sports industries to do the same, would have a phenomenal impact. (Imagine MTV Cribs showcasing the work of talented black architects instead of McMansion developers.) But that would only elicit short-term gains and subvert the competitive process necessary for good design.
What gets me most excited is the vision of a whole new generation of kids personally inspired to explore all aspects of their creativity; who have discovered the unlimited potentials of the architectural discipline because they listened to something Kanye West said with passion and conviction.
But they are not the only ones listening. We all are. Many may not hear the depth and complexity of his meaning. Many will find it easier to point and laugh at a Jimmy Kimmel skit than to catalyze change. There remain us few—a marginalized subset of a marginalized profession—who are listening and are hungry for more.
Sekou Cooke is a Jamaican-born architect, licensed in New York and California, and a former assistant professor at Syracuse University’s School of Architecture. He is currently pursuing a post-professional degree in architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.
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